Sarah Schulmans The Child: The Toxic Machine
In 1997, 15-year-old Sam Manzie sexually assaulted and murdered 11-year-old Eddie Werner. Those are the bare facts. Shrouding them, however, are complex, interlocked issues: queer teen sexuality, pedophilia, homophobia in macro and micro forms, and the explicit and insidious ways that the state, mainstream culture and families can converge to drive queer folk mad — and then blame the victim for the fallout. Novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman’s 11th book, The Child, is based on the Manzie case. It examines the dynamic of cause and effect between sanctioned manifestations of homophobia and the consequential alienation and madness (low-flame or combusted) still suffered by many gays and lesbians. As she writes of one of the novel’s lesbian characters, “First, they humiliated her for being gay, so she became isolated. Sequence, consequence.”
Manzie’s sexual relationship with Stephen Simmons, whom the boy met online when he was 14 and Simmons was 43, was cited by the teen’s family and by the court as the trigger behind the murder. Manzie had been corrupted.
Schulman uses that tragedy as the foundation for The Child. In her quest to make sense of damaged queer psyches, she sifts through recent political and cultural history. She makes note of how the American legal system enforces not only law, but homophobic Judeo-Christian morality, and outlines ways that the American health care industry specifically fails women and gay men. At its core, though, the book is a painful but astute observation of the roles played by families themselves in inflicting spiritual wounds. The main players are Eva, a Jewish lawyer born in the ’60s but shaped by the New York of the ’70s, and her California-born and -raised gentile girlfriend, a frustrated playwright; Hockey, a gay lawyer battling HIV; and 15-year-old Stew, whose slow descent into insanity makes for wrenching reading. In true Schulman form, the book has a gleaming intelligence and chilled anger. It’s beautifully blunt and plainspoken. Schulman recently spoke with the Weekly by phone from her home in New York.
L.A. WEEKLY: In the afterword for The Child, you write, “The novel you hold in your hand was ready for publication in 1999. It reflects a world of perceptions and values firmly grounded in that year.” And you express regret that neither you nor the reader was able to experience the book in the moment in which it was meant to be read. Can you explain or define that specific moment and how it led to The Child being written?
SARAH SCHULMAN: It was finished in ’99. That’s the moment where protease inhibitors were beginning to be widely used, but they still had enormous toxic side effects. People who had expected to die were instead plummeted into this kind of merry-go-round of extreme drug reactions and dramatic ups and downs. It looked like things were going to change but at a very high price. So, there’s a great deal of emotional change and uncertainty, and physical discomfort. Also technologically, it’s when people are starting to get cell phones and to really be online, but most people are still waiting at phone booths and carrying quarters around in their pockets. So culturally, it’s quite different. Stew is young, so he is living online, but that’s very mysterious to older people.
I also think at that time there was still a common outrage and recognition of how the marginalization was hurting people. I feel that now people are so assaulted and beaten down by being lied to culturally for so long that there’s not even a place to articulate those kinds of feelings. I think the book looks so unusual today, but had it been published in its time, it would have been more in sync with how people were looking at things. I don’t think there’s anything like it being published now, because I don’t think we’re as aware now. I think we’re much more blunted. The culture is moving backward.
You say the novel was finished in ’99. When did you start it? What took so long for it to get published?
It took my friend Diamanda Galas picking up a phone and making it happen. No one wanted to touch it, and I think it’s because I wasn’t condemning the relationship between Stew and the older men. When I got to Carroll & Graf, my editor and I were very far apart culturally, and he had a very hard time understanding the book. So, there are three or four extremely explanatory paragraphs that I don’t really like, but I was forced to put them in to help him understand what the book was doing.
What was it about the Manzie case that attracted you?
He was a young man, about 15, who lived in New Jersey and who had gone online looking for an older man to have sex with. The [older] guy got caught in a pedophilia Internet sting, and the kid got exposed to his community. At that point, [Manzie] had a psychotic episode and murdered a little boy. When he chose his own boyfriend, they said he was a child. But when he killed somebody, he was tried as an adult. They offered him a deal where if he would say that he was molested, he could plea bargain. He refused and took a 30-year sentence, which he is now serving. That case profoundly affected me, and so I think I started with that story . . . You know, each character at a different point in the story is the child. It’s really about the consequences of familial homophobia on people’s emotional lives, that it has a very, very wide range of consequence that each of the characters experiences in their own way, but it’s dramatically determining in how their lives unfold.
That aspect of the book — the stark truthfulness of the simple observation that society and family really do drive so many gays and lesbians mad, and then the victim is blamed for the madness and the consequences of it — is . . .
. . . the classic American structure of oppression. You have a systemic oppression that is invisible and looks normal, and then people become pathologized because of its consequences on their lives.
At one point, you write, “The struggle to love justice was so hard in this era; the barriers so intense.” Where do you find hope?
Well, you know, I am very optimistic, as you can see by looking at the effort that I make. I make a huge effort to create work and to bring it into the world and to talk about it intelligently with people I know I can have a real conversation with. Right now, because public life is so untrue and so little that is said in public is true, the thing that I rely on are other individuals who I know are committed to being accountable. I rely on being in dialogue with them. That’s the holding pattern until the Zeitgeist changes. I mean, it was Diamanda Galas who got my book published — it wasn’t Edmund White. [Laughs.] The people who are on the margins, who know what’s real, can actually help each other, even if we don’t control representation.
The trick is finding those people on the margins who are not just using their outsider status as a way to secure a place for themselves in the machine. Quite often, the ones who are lifted up are those who will maintain things just as they are.
Yes, that is true for the most part. And sometimes there are people who get caught up in it who try to be conscious and try to maintain something articulate in what they’re making, but that’s very difficult. That’s why you have to be part of a community. Otherwise, you’re just an individual, and ultimately you become an opportunist, even against your better judgment. But if you’re accountable to other people who don’t have the power that you have, or at least if you’re in dialogue with them on some level, there’s a little more hope. It’s a toxic machine, absolutely.
THE CHILD | By SARAH SCHULMAN | Carroll & Graf | 304 pages | $25 hardcover
Sarah Schulman reads from The Child at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Sun., July 15, 4 p.m. (310) 659-3110.
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